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Inland waterways

An inland waterway Britain's inland waterways are extremely diverse and comprise a wide variety of natural and artificial watercourses and other waters.

Most of the system is non-tidal and consists of canals, and rivers which have been made navigable. There are some tidal waterways - mainly naturally navigable rivers and their estuaries.

At present there are approximately 5100 kms of fully navigable inland waters in England and Wales, about 450 kms of which are tidal.

The role of most non-tidal waterways has changed radically over the last 30 years. Having once been used mostly for freight transport, these waterways are now used chiefly for leisure and amenity. They are an important part of the country's heritage and serve a wide variety of other uses ranging from land drainage to acting as a catalyst for regeneration.

Who is responsible for inland waterways?

This map shows who is responsible for the management of the inland waterways:

  • Waterways map (PDF on Association of Inland Navigation Authorities website)

What are the Government's policies for inland waterways?

The Government's policies for the inland waterways of England and Wales are set out in Waterways for Tomorrow (PDF 246KB) published in June 2000. This has been revised and the draft strategy is currently out to consultation until 26 March 2010.

The Government's aim is to promote the waterways, encouraging a modern, integrated and sustainable approach to their use. This involves conserving the waterways, while at the same time maximising the opportunities they offer for leisure and recreation, urban and rural regeneration, the environment, and for freight transport.

What we do

We have an over-arching responsibility for the inland waterways of England and Wales and are specifically responsible for navigation issues. The Scottish Government is responsible for waterways in Scotland.

One of our main roles is to sponsor British Waterways, a task shared with the Scottish Government. Another important role is to oversee the navigation functions of the Environment Agency. We also appoint members to the Inland Waterways Advisory Council and offer advice and support to all bodies involved with inland waterways.

Some aspects of the waterways fall to other Government Departments:

Inter-Departmental Group on Inland Waterways

The Inter-Departmental Group on Inland Waterways was established in response to a recommendation from the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee in their report published in 2007 on British Waterways. Its Terms of Reference are:

To provide a focal point for:

  • more effective cross government coordination on inland waterways matters
  • a fuller understanding and recognition of the contribution that the inland waterways can make to government policies for climate change, environmental improvement, public health, recreation, regeneration, heritage, planning, transport and community cohesion
  • discussion on proposed research into the social and economic value of the waterways and undertake a refresh of government policy for the waterways
  • discussion on key strategic issues.

Membership consists of representatives from the Departments for Communities and Local Government, for Transport, for Health, for Culture, Media and Sport, for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, from Wales Assembly Government, British Waterways, the Environment Agency, the Broads Authority, the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities and the Inland Waterways Advisory Council.

Meetings are held two to three times a year.


Transport and Works Act order: The Environment Agency (Inland Waterways) Order 2010

In 2004 the Environment Agency made an application to the Secretary of State for an Order under the Transport and Works Act 1992 (TWA) to harmonise the Agency’s boat registration and licensing schemes.  The intention of the Order was to allow the Agency to adopt a consistent approach to all of its boat users on its inland navigations, to create a more clear definition of ‘the waterways’ for registration and use purposes, create a power whereby the Agency can vary more easily the periods of validity of a boat’s registration and create a requirement for all classes of boat to be insured against risks to third parties.

Under  TWA  procedures, a letter must be issued to the Environment Agency which sets out the Secretary of State’s determination whether or not to approve the Order.  As background to the Secretary of State’s decision, the letter must set out, among other things, the nature of the outstanding objections, the representations made by the applicant (EA) and the Secretary of State’s conclusions.


Inland waterways bodies

Inland waterways
Zone 2D
Ergon House
Horseferry Road
London SW1P 2AL

Telephone: 020 7238 4807
Fax: 020 7238 4877

Page last modified: 08 March 2010